the healing muse

Volume 6, 2006

Thai-Burma Border, Circa 2005

Benjamin H. Han
Dearing Writing Award, First Place
Student Division

On the roofs of the clinics are the dock te lizards
all through the night I hear the enormity of their song,
and all my students laugh at my fear.
And it still takes me a while to understand where I am,
where imaginary borders meet. And no longer do I
feel uncomfortable with my own inbetweeness.

I feel ashamed.

Today, we are in search of iodine, in almost every literal sense of the word. A patient came in from Burma this morning with an enormous goiter. All fifteen medics felt it from behind the woman. I have never felt a goiter, and I did not want to. There was no iodine in the clinic so Dr. Eric and I had another opportunity for an afternoon adventure. We had mapped out the entire town by motorbikes, and went searching for bottles of iodine. The Thai pharmacies, none. The private hospital near the mosque wouldn’t give it to us. 7-11, why did we even bother?

We parked outside the public hospital at the motorbike parking lot. A patient just arrived from the back of a truck from a bicycle accident. The nurses did not understand us. But the office workers took us up empty hallways with glossy photographs. The King and his shadows were everywhere. We waited. Then social medicine came and gave us a box of one hundred bottles of iodine. Free. Take it. Social medicine. Take to them.

“Shouldn’t each container be black? Why are they all clear?” Eric asked me outside.
“I don’t know. But what I remember is, shouldn’t they be black.”
“Yeah, I think, oh well.”

After work every afternoon I ran the 5km to the border. Street dogs constantly chased after me. Behind the large white gate that served as an entrance over the river into Burma, I would sit on large concrete blocks and stare into the river where people swam across, and wave to the families living under the bridge. The Thai military jeeps with large guns never bothered me nor did they seem to bother anyone.

Dripping of brown river water, making no attempt to hide trade routes,
these people swam, as if borders are just nonsense, fantasy,
there are no straight lines, Burmese pop music travels across the river.

And all my students, my dear students, can it seems, never go home.
Never cross the imaginary lines that separate them infinitely.
And although they never show emotion of their past or present, I can sense their pain,
of forced migration, burnt land, death, torture, and of 8.8.1998.
And I will never be able to comprehend.

4. (Bangkok)
I cannot think of anything more comforting than being with you, high up in the Asia Hotel, looking down upon the second most ridiculous city (Seoul will always be our first). Before you arrived at Don Muang Airport I waited in the morning in Lumphini Park before the sun rose. I walked back and forth between the park and the HSBC bank, walking over 3 elevated cross walks and 2 narrow alleys. I took a red city bus without air conditioning for 5 baht, hoping it would land me near Don Muang. The route ended at Hua Lamphong, and I walked around it, through Chinatown, through narrow street markets, mapping out what you would think of the north. Wondering if you would understand the space I had created and be at peace with what I have to do with my life.

And on the back of my motorbike up north,
driving through endless fields and farmlands,
waving at the cows and goats,
your teeth clanging on my shoulder at every bump in the road,

We stared down at the gold pagodas into Burma,
And you would never understand these postcolonial realities,
But this is so much more comforting.

Back in Bangkok, on your last night, we drive in a blue and red taxi on the 12 lane elevated highways. You tell me the skytrain in Bangkok is the blue line in Seoul between Ich’on all the way down to Isu, only ten years ago. And everything is neon lights and I wish the taxi driver would stop talking to me about Korean cars.

I don’t want you to leave.
there is something about coming back into Mae Sot at 5am from Bangkok alone,
riding a motorcycle taxi past rows of monks walking barefoot in the rain.

M. told me my last night on the border to remember each distinct smell upon entering a new country. Burma smelled the same I told her, and tried to convince her that these borders are all arbitrary. But when I finally left in the morning, curving through the roads on the bus on uphill mountains and near waterfalls, outside of Tak, I noticed there was a scent to the clinic and its malaria, and of the exact location of the border, and now it was gone. And then the bus slowed at a checkpoint. Three Thai soldiers got on the bus, and everyone had to show identification. Next to me were a Karen couple, refugees without any papers, and they were removed from the bus. I knew already what jail they were headed to back in Mae Sot.

Then a Chinese woman was asked to remove her durian from her chair. I had not noticed the pungent smell of the fruit. The police argued with her in English and she argued back in English.

“This is mine! If I put it under the bus someone will take it!!!” she screamed.

“It is illegal in Thailand to have a durian on the bus or in a hotel room. Please let us take it and store it down below.”


After a fifteen-minute argument and struggle, they removed her durian from the bus, and the smell was gone indefinitely.

Return to Table of Contents, Volume 6, 2006.

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